Palermo, the regional capital of Sicily, the city at the edge of Europe and at the centre of the ancient world
A place of mystery, where reality often outperforms the traveller’s imagination and preconceived stereotypes. Less than 200km from Tunis, Palermo is like nowhere else in Europe. Defying the mafia in a maze of crumbling grandeur, it is at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. Every neighbouring power has occupied Sicily at some time, which has created a sizzling mix of Arabic food, Spanish streets, Norman towers and Italian neglect.
Part Punic, part Phoenician, part Roman, part Arab, the city of Palermo is healthy stuff. Snugly spectacular in its bay setting at the foot of Sicily’s Monte Pellegrino, it looks, as a garibaldino approaching it from the sea once said, like a city imagined by a poetic child. Colourful relics of Middle Eastern domination mix with the Norman and baroque, so the back of a building might look entirely different from its front or sides. This has always struck me as impeccably gallant: an acceptance of this, pragmatic incorporation of that. Beauty, rot and salvage. Renaissance palaces next to shacks, 194 churches, and the domed roofs of one-time mosques – all reminders of countless invaders. History is a tumble, chaos.